Magazine article New Criterion

Hussar of the Brush

Magazine article New Criterion

Hussar of the Brush

Article excerpt

Bette Midler observed that it might be twenty to one in the morning in New York, but it's still 1940 in London. In which case, it's still a quarter past six in the evening in Paris. If history marches like a timepiece, then France's clock stopped in 1815, around eight on the night of June 18 when, as the charge of Napoleon's chasseurs crested the ridge that lay between his lines and Wellington's center, the riflemen of the 1st Foot Guards rose up from the reverse slope and opened fire at point-blank range. The wild ride that began at the Bastille in 1789 ended outside Brussels in a wet meadow--in Brabant Dutch, a Waterloo.

Historians may insist that Napoleon's defeat was sealed at 1630 hours, when the Prussians attacked Napoleon's flank at Plancenoit. But memory is emotional, and national memory is mythical. A dance of death and glory: mounts and men, rearing and flailing, tumbling together into the mud in fatal synchrony as blood flecks the cavalryman's fur-trimmed pelisse and the straining flanks of his horse; the Foot Guards rushing against the loose French squares, red and blue coats wrestling as the bayonet hovers over the chest and the body recoils from the musket ball; the countercharge of chasseurs who rear over the British artillerymen at the hilltop, the brass hilts of their sabers flecked with the gold of sunset, the blades silver and carmine; the flank attack and foot charge from the British skirmishers, the chaos of the melee; and then, as the surviving riders, wrenching the reins hard down, twist their horses' necks and flee--Wellington, deploying his trademark footwear, standing in his stirrups, and waving his black bicorn hat for the general advance.

It should be a canvas by Eugene Delacroix, but it cannot be one. In the 1870s, Alfred Cadart published an etching after Delacroix by Adolphe Martial-Potemont called Waterloo. In Delacroix's drawing, a lone traveler lies on a bare reverse slope, his body merging into those of his two dead horses. His Waterloo, like the one that abba sang about in the 1970s, is strictly metaphorical. The title was tacked on by Cadart, perhaps in a moment of inspired cynicism, perhaps in acknowledgement that no one painted other people's Waterloos quite like Delacroix.

All modern painting is after Delacroix, and Delacroix painted after Waterloo. Delacroix's brush loosened the Grand Manner so that historical narrative and its motto of virtue become amoral, sensual, self-conscious, egotistical, nostalgic for order and authority, and voyeuristically aroused by the spectacle of their undoingmodern, as the French called it. The same symptoms had characterized the Revolution's blood-greased slide from virtue to depravity, and the rise of Napoleon as modern Caesar. The affliction and its aftershocks defined Delacroix's era. He knew it, too, for self-consciousness was part of the Romantic curse. In 1827, when The Death of Sardanapalus found no buyers, Delacroix realized too late that "the infernal felicity of the brush," had caused "my Waterloo."

Born in 1798, the year that Napoleon invaded Egypt, Delacroix was seventeen when the catastrophe at Waterloo obliged him to seek gloire by the brush, not the sword. He inherited the Romantic agony: the substitution of art for action, aesthetics for sword and spurs--the last stand of antagonism against irrelevance as the image of one "lame devil," Talleyrand the politician, becomes that of another, Lord Byron the celebrity.

"Tomorrow I shall attack that cursed tablecloth which will be my Austerlitz or my Waterloo," Delacroix told Frederic Villot in 1829, as he prepared for the crisis of another Belgian bloodbath, The Assassination of the Bishop of Liege. The discovery of the Will, that philosophical property Schopenhauer posited in 1818, three years after Waterloo, suggested that the historical canvas might be a blank canvas. The democratic revolutions had revealed the hereditary dynasty as a costume drama, its final act the fall of the guillotine, the raising of the head, the acclaim of the audience. …

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